Maine’s largest city is expected to continue providing General Assistance to immigrants who do not qualify for those benefits under state rules.
But Portland will not seek a state reimbursement for the General Assistance spending on some would-be asylum seekers, including those who are working on an application for asylum but simply haven’t filed it.
Instead, aid to those immigrants and others who are deemed ineligible under new state rules will be paid for entirely with local tax dollars, said City Councilor Belinda Ray, the incoming chairwoman of the council’s Health and Human Services Committee.
“We have funds set aside to address people the state has deemed not eligible,” Ray said Friday. She said no one will lose assistance – only the funding sources will change.
On Monday, the City Council will consider a proposal to change its General Assistance ordinance to align its eligibility requirements with new state rules finalized this year. General Assistance is a safety net program of last resort for people who need vouchers for emergency food, shelter and other necessities. It’s funded through a combination of state and local funds.
“This (ordinance change) is purely to make it clear that we are eligible for the reimbursements we seek,” Ray said.
Disagreements between Portland and the state have already cost the city millions of dollars.
A state law enacted last year granted eligibility for anyone “who is lawfully present in the United States or who is pursuing a lawful process to apply for immigration relief.” Assistance was capped at two years.
Federal law allows noncitizens to file for asylum within one year of entering the United States, regardless of how they arrived in the country. The vast majority of asylum seekers in Maine arrive in the U.S. on student, work or visitation visas that expire within six months, meaning they have six months to complete the long and complicated asylum application before facing deportation.
Federal law also prohibits asylum seekers from receiving legal work permits for at least six months after they apply. And many asylum seekers wait years for interviews with immigration officials because of a growing national backlog.
The council revised its ordinance months before the state rules were finalized. While it anticipated some of the rules, the council’s October 2015 action deemed someone eligible for General Assistance who was in the U.S. for less than a year but hadn’t filed an application. However, the rules released by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services in May deemed those noncitizens ineligible.
Other groups previously deemed eligible for state assistance, but who now will receive local assistance, include parents or guardians of American-born children, as well as unaccompanied minors – a federal designation for children who crossed the border without a legal guardian.
After the new state rules were released in May, immigrant advocates, including Maine Equal Justice Partners, said they were considering filing a lawsuit over the state’s interpretation of the law. Neither Robyn Merrill, executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners, nor Sue Roche, director of the Legal Immigrant Advocacy Project, could be reached for comment.
The pending council action is the latest chapter in what has been a long – and costly – disagreement between Portland and the administration of Gov. Paul LePage, which in 2014 sought to cutprevent immigrants who enter the country legally and then apply for political asylum from receiving state benefits until they are able to receive federal authorization to work.
After the initial effort failed through the official state rule-making process, the administration later informed municipalities that it would simply no longer reimburse communities that continued to provide assistance to asylum seekers, citing a federal law enacted under President Bill Clinton in 1996.
Portland, along with the Maine Municipal Association, sued the administration over the action and ultimately received a split ruling from a Superior Court judge. Justice Thomas Warren ruled on June 9, 2015, that the administration was able to withhold the disputed reimbursement from municipalities, since the Maine Legislature had not enacted a bill making asylum seekers eligible. However, Warren also ruled that the administration should have followed proper rule-making procedures, which it didn’t do.
Portland and the MMA ultimately decided not to appeal – or seek clarification on – the ruling. City officials estimate that Portland lost roughly $3 million in fiscal year 2015 because of the lawsuit. However, the city recently settled a separate lawsuit with the state over its homeless shelter operations, receiving $1.3 million from the state.
After the ruling, the Legislature passed a bill making some noncitizens eligible for General Assistance. LePage mistakenly missed a deadline to fulfill his promise to veto the bill and it went into law. A subsequent effort to force a statewide referendum to overturn it was aborted.
During last year’s budget process, Portland allocated $250,000 for an estimated 90 immigrants that it expected would not be deemed eligible under the state program. Those individuals include immigrants who have not filed an asylum application.
Through September, the city had spent about $68,000 of those funds, plus an estimated $20,000 more in October, according to City Manager Jon Jennings.
City officials say the fund helped 34 families, totaling 54 individuals, in September, and 38 families, totaling 48 individuals, in October.
Continuing to help those excluded from the state program by using local funds would be an annual budget decision for the City Council.
If the policy continues, the cost could increase to $265,000 in the next budget, according to Jessica Grondin, the city’s communications director.
“I will continue to push for it every year,” Mayor Ethan Strimling said. “These are our neighbors. These are the people who are building our economy.”
Also on Monday, the council will vote on creating a new Office of Economic Opportunity.